Push off or not, the most relevant charge we can now attach to Joel Embiid is his ascent to the top of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.
The Philly big man capped the climb controversially Wednesday, just before celebrating his 29th birthday.
Whistled for what would have been his sixth foul with 4:12 left after bulling over Evan Mobley while draining a 19-foot jumper, Embiid pled his case to referee Derek Richardson, as the crowd of 19,432 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse erupted anticipating a disqualification.
Sixers coach Doc Rivers immediately signaled for a replay review.
The result: no call.
That reversal kept the Sixers big man on the floor to finish off a 36-point, 18-rebound masterpiece, as Philadelphia extended the NBA’s current longest winning streak to six games by defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers, 118-109. The matchup represented the final meeting between the Sixers and Cavaliers, which determined the tie-breaker for a pair of teams currently sitting at third and fourth in the East, respectively.
Flexing two-way dominance almost nightly, Embiid is shooting 60% overall and 50% on 3-pointers during this winning streak to go with 8.5 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 2.5 blocks per game in anchoring a team that is 8-3 since the All-Star break.
“I thought it was a good call,” Embiid said of Wednesday’s replay review. “Right before the hit, you could see he was already starting to flop. I watch basketball every day, and I was pretty confident they would call it the other way.”
Naturally, Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff disagreed.
“It’s clear as day, that’s a charge,” he said.
What’s not in dispute (from this vantage point), though, is where Embiid currently stacks up against the rest of the Kia MVP hopefuls with the Sixers prepping for a Friday matchup at Charlotte (7 ET, NBA League Pass).
So, we’re reshuffling the top of the order to reflect Embiid’s latest tear, not to mention the recent struggles of the Denver Nuggets led by reigning back-to-back MVP winner Nikola Jokic. The international bigs occupy the top positions in the latest Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, and the betting action has shifted that way, too, with the Action Network, FanDuel and DraftKings all recently making Embiid the betting favorite to win the award.
But as quickly as the action shifted Embiid’s direction, we all know this race can and likely will make another turn coming down the stretch with teams fighting for postseason positioning.
Giannis Antetokounmpo lurks at No. 3 on the ladder and had played in just three of Milwaukee’s last six games, producing 25 points Thursday in a 139-123 loss to the Indiana Pacers. Antetokounmpo has averaged 35.7 ppg and 10.7 rpg over that span for a Bucks squad that appears finally whole again after dealing with a slew of injuries earlier in the season.
“We’re a really good team. But nothing is guaranteed in life,” Antetokounmpo said. “Hopefully, with everybody we have on this team we’re able to go out there and compete. Before we even get there, we’ve got to compete with health. That’s the No. 1 opponent that we have right now. If we are healthy, we are able to have a chance to go out there and compete and try to get what we deserve.”
Jayson Tatum, meanwhile, checks in at No. 4, despite shooting 12-for-38 in his last two games while going 2-for-18 on 3-pointers during that span.
Luka Doncic finds himself on the verge of falling out of the top five. He missed his third consecutive game Wednesday due a strained left thigh as Dallas bested San Antonio, 137-128, in overtime to snap a three-game skid.
And now, the top 5 in the 2022-23 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Last week’s ranking: No. 2
Season stats: 33.5 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 4.1 apg
Seven straight 30-point performances push the NBA’s top scorer to No. 1 in this week’s MVP Ladder. Embiid churned out another gem on Wednesday against Cleveland’s No. 2-rated defense with 36 points, 18 rebounds and three blocks, marking the third-straight outing the big man has racked up at least 30 points with three blocks. The 29-year-old became the first player since Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal to accomplish that feat, and he took advantage of every opportunity in knocking down all 10 of his free-throw attempts. The reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week, Embiid leads a Sixers squad that is 20-12 on the road with nine more games away from home left on the schedule.
2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Last week’s ranking: No. 1
Season stats: 24.8 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 9.9 apg
Jokic helped the Nuggets snap a season-high four-game losing streak Thursday with a 30-point performance in the club’s 119-100 win over the Detroit Pistons. The victory clinched the Northwest Division for Denver as Jokic finished only one assist away from notching his 28th triple-double of the season. “I told our team it’s a good win,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Clinched a playoff spot, won your division, that’s great. Let this be the start of something special. We lost four in a row, lowest of the low for us during this season.” It’s clear, though, that the tough times aren’t keeping Jokic from harboring more lofty expectations. Check out the Denver big’s recent remarks in his “Timeout With Taylor Rooks” interview.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week’s ranking: No. 3
Season stats: 31.4 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 5.5 apg
Milwaukee seized designation as the first team to win 50 games, clinching the league’s first postseason berth on Tuesday behind a 36-point, 11-rebound showing from Antetokounmpo, who racked up 46 points the night before in a 133-124 win against Sacramento. When Khris Middleton clocks in with 31 points and nine assists like he did against the Kings, you know you’re cooking with hot grease. As Antetokounmpo mentioned earlier, it’s imperative the Bucks stay healthy throughout the stretch run. In Thursday’s loss to Indiana, Antetokounmpo played in his 711th career game with the Bucks, tying Junior Bridgeman (1974-84) for the most in franchise history.
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Last week’s ranking: No. 4
Season stats: 30.1 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 4.7 apg
Tatum joins Embiid and Antetokounmpo as one of three players in the NBA averaging 30 points or more with nine rebounds. He’s also the second-winningest competitor out of the trio this season as the Celtics have 48 wins (trailing only Antetokounmpo’s 50). If the 25-year-old continues to contribute at this rate, he’ll become the first player in team annals to post those averages in a single season. Those stats would eclipse the previous record set by Celtics legend Larry Bird during the 1987-88 season (29.9 ppg, 9.3 rpg). At the halfway mark of a six-game road trip, the Celtics face Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday (10 ET, NBA League Pass) before heading to Utah and Sacramento to close out the trip. If Boston finds a way to reclaim the No. 1 spot in the East, we might see Tatum move up in the top five.
5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Last week’s ranking: No. 5
Season stats: 33.0 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 8.0 apg
Doncic tried to fight his way through a left thigh strain that has hindered him for several games. But the pain from the injury progressively worsened, leading to the superstar point guard missing his third consecutive game on Wednesday in San Antonio. The good news is that an MRI on Doncic’s left thigh reportedly revealed no damage. But the Mavericks are eighth in the West, having lost six of their last 10 going into a couple of tough road matchups. First, they visit the Lakers on Friday (10:30 ET, NBA TV), followed by a clash Monday at Memphis. Doncic isn’t expected to miss significant time, but it’s important to note that co-star Kyrie Irving (foot) has also sat out of three consecutive games for a club clawing to avoid a berth in the Play-In Tournament.
The Next Five:
6. Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings (Last week’s ranking: No. 8)
7. Julius Randle, New York Knicks (Last week’s ranking: No. 7)
8. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder (Last week’s ranking: No. 10)
9. James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers (Last week’s ranking: No. 9)
10. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns (Last week’s ranking: not ranked)
And five more (listed alphabetically): Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers; Kevin Durant, Phoenix Suns; De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings; Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz; Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies.
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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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